Focus on the Pig: The Making It Better Symposium at RISD

Mar 16, 2011, 10:21 AM, Posted by Steve Downs

Aidan Petrie of Ximedica said it bluntly. In acknowledging that it is often tough for designers to break into health care institutions and play a significant role, Petrie, an industrial designer, gives this advice to designers: "remember, it’s not about putting lipstick on a pig – it’s about the pig." Exactly. In that stark phrase Petrie captured much of my thinking as I sat through the day-and-a-half long “symposium on art, design and the future of health care” at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), sponsored by RWJF’s Pioneer Portfolio. The intersection of art, design and health should not be about prettying up a lousy system—it should be about designing a better system to begin with.

The symposium was the brainchild of RISD president John Maeda, who wanted to connect the talents of RISD students and faculty with the urgent problems of health and health care. And there were many references to the strange bedfellows nature of the gathering. This awkwardness was most pronounced among the participants who came from the health care and public health side of the aisle. The artists and designers who spoke generally seemed quite comfortable with the notion that health does not exist independent of a broader life but is deeply intertwined, and as such, it is a natural subject for art and design.

So we saw Damon Rich apply a designer’s approach to understanding how to boost public participation in the decision-making processes that affect public spaces; the wonderful artist Mel Chin bring his passion and vision to the tragedy of lead poisoning in inner cities; and Amale Andraos’ brilliant visions of greener, healthier urban landscapes and buildings. But, by and large (there were exceptions), participants from the health sector looked at this question of how art and design could intersect with health with a slight puzzlement before defaulting to… communication. As one put it, we need great designers to help us communicate the complexity of health care in ways that people will understand. With all due respect to health communication, which is a vital field, health in the United States has even more fundamental challenges that demand the talents and skills of the design and artistic communities. Let’s get them to focus on the pig.

Within a couple of generations we have managed to engineer movement out of our work days, cooking out of our homes and play out of our children’s lives. We have designed communities and pioneered lifestyles whose only logical consequence is poor health. We have designed a health care system that has brought us the 7-minute office visit, the dreaded emergency room wait, the explanation of benefits statement, 50 million people without coverage and – oh yeah – a crushing federal deficit. I won’t be naïve and say that a few designers will turn this all around – these are deep-rooted problems – but I do believe strongly that we need the creativity and the perspective that they bring. We need people who look at these problems differently. Who are, as John Maeda put it, naturally curious. Whose views are not so deeply ingrained that they cannot ask “why not?” Who, like the delightfully unexpected Kelly Dobson, ask questions that stop us in our tracks, make us uncomfortable and make us remember that we’re human.